The fourth round of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Pakistan takes place in Washington this week at a time when the Obama administration’s policy approach to Pakistan has begun to pay dividends—we’re taking terrorist leaders off the battlefield and arresting Taliban leaders. Dangerous global security threats persist in Pakistan, but the Obama administration has put U.S. national security on more solid footing in Pakistan through an assertive and integrated national security approach to meeting multiple threats there.
Three years ago in 2007 Pakistan was descending into chaos in part due to neglect and the Bush administration’s misguided approach, which was distracted in the trenches of Iraq. But the Obama administration has embarked on a comprehensive approach to Pakistan that has shifted dynamics to make America safer in a strategy centered on three main pillars:
1. A more aggressive counterterrorism strategy. The Obama administration has taken a more aggressive and proactive approach than the Bush administration in going after terrorist and militant groups in Pakistan. The Obama administration has taken out three times as many terror suspects in Pakistan during the last 14 months than the Bush administration did in its last five years in office.
2. A more effective aid program. The Obama administration has embarked on a strategy of reaching out to a wide range of Pakistani leaders and citizens, implementing a public engagement strategy aimed at countering militancy, and offering an aid program with incentives for reform in Pakistan. The Bush administration squandered U.S. taxpayer money, sending it disproportionately to the Pakistani military and getting little to no tangible results for U.S. national security.
3. A more comprehensive regional strategy. The Obama administration pragmatically recognizes that what happens in Pakistan directly affects efforts to complete the mission next door in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan suffered from an inattention and neglect under the Bush administration, in large part due to the distraction and diversion of resources to Iraq.
It is far too soon to proclaim “mission accomplished” in Pakistan, but the Obama administration has started to turn the tide with an integrated and pragmatic strategy aimed at strengthening the bilateral alliance. This week’s meetings in Washington are designed to further deepen ties between the United States and Pakistan and achieve more progress in the coming months.
Overcoming a misguided policy and years of neglect
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country with more people than Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan combined, is home to some of the most dangerous terror networks. U.S. policy in Pakistan suffered from neglect and missteps for years under the Bush administration. The Obama administration is overcoming this by making important strategic shifts in its approach to Pakistan in three areas: counterterrorism, development aid, and a regional strategy.
Descent into chaos under Bush. Under the Bush administration, Osama bin Laden escaped into Pakistan in 2001. And Al Qaeda and Taliban militants regrouped on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border when the Bush administration turned its attention and resources to Iraq before the job was finished. Pakistan ceded territory to dangerous terror networks and militant groups from 2001 to 2008, and the country started to slip into greater internal political and economic turmoil.
- Afghan Taliban militants used Pakistani territory without restraint as a staging ground to mount a rising insurgency in Afghanistan from 2001 until recent days.
- The Bush administration placed a bad $11 billion bet on the Pakistani government led by former president Pervez Musharraf from 2001 until 2008 in a misguided attempt to buy the allegiance of this leader.
- The Musharraf government ceded territory to militant groups, signing deals with tribal groups in South Waziristan (2004) and North Waziristan (2006), areas along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.
Progress under Obama. The Obama administration has put intense pressure on Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan through the use of drone strikes and counterinsurgency support to the Pakistani military and police.
The Obama administration has taken out nearly 700 terrorist suspects in Pakistan, three times as many during its first year in office than the last five years of the Bush administration (2004-2008). At least 20 senior terrorist leaders are no longer threats to global security, including:
- Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader suspected in the killing of Benazir Bhutto
- Mohammad Qari Zafar, a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi commander wanted in connection to the 2006 bombing of the U.S. Karachi consulate
- Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, leader of Uighur Turkistani Islamic Party linked to Al Qaeda
- Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, wanted in connection to 1986 Pan Am Karachi hijacking
- Sheikh Mansoor, an Egyptian Al Qaeda leader
The Obama administration has continued to provide support to the Pakistani military, but with stricter conditions on how this money is used. High-level engagement between U.S. and Pakistani military and intelligence agencies has paid dividends, with the Pakistani security agencies taking a more aggressive stance against militants.
- The Pakistani military has begun to more aggressively target militant and terrorist groups in key areas in the north and west (Swat, Malakand, South Waziristan, and Bajaur) in an attempt to wrest control from militants and “reverse their momentum.”
- The military has shifted some troops from its eastern border with India, and Pakistan now has approximately 150,000 Pakistani troops within the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
- The Pakistanis have captured and killed key Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. The most significant was the capture of Mullah Baradar, the second in command of the Afghan Taliban.
Waste and corruption under Bush. The Bush administration squandered U.S. taxpayer money, sending it disproportionately to the Pakistani military and getting little or no tangible results for U.S. national security.
- The Bush administration spent billions in Coalition Support Funds designed to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the money was often wasted and diverted because of a lack of oversight on Pakistan’s actions.
- Despite its rhetorical support for advancing democracy, the Bush administration spent a paltry sum to advance reform in Pakistan. It spent the same amount on democratic reform efforts in 2006 as it did on jet engine and helicopter spare parts in the country.
Resetting the bilateral relationship under Obama. The Obama administration is implementing the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which triples nonmilitary assistance and sets conditions demanding more responsible action by Pakistan’s government on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation.
- Congress approved new assistance last year, and the United States is now the largest foreign donor to Pakistan. Its aid is providing incentives for reform in the country and moving beyond previous policies that provided a blank check to Pakistan’s military.
- The Obama administration has embarked on a strategy of reaching out to a wide range of Pakistani leaders and citizens—exemplified by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan last fall—and is implementing a public engagement strategy aimed at countering militancy.
A comprehensive South Asia regional strategy
The forgotten front under Bush. Mired in Iraq’s conflict, the Bush administration was distracted by a growing Afghan Taliban insurgency that benefited from a safe haven in Pakistan.
- Eastern Afghanistan slipped into greater instability by 2008 due to the Bush administration’s inattention and neglect.
- Supply convoys for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan were suffering from a series of attacks in Pakistan by the end of 2008.
An integrated regional strategy. The Obama administration pragmatically recognized that what happens in Pakistan directly affects efforts to complete the mission next door in Afghanistan.
- The Obama administration initiated several comprehensive reviews during its first year in office and developed an integrated regional strategy addressing instability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- It continued to engage India as a strategic partner, hosting India’s leader for the Obama administration’s first state dinner in November 2009.
- It has built a broad global coalition to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan by reinvigorating bilateral relations with key countries in the region and establishing a contact group of special representatives from numerous countries and international organizations to coordinate political and financial support to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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Former Senior Fellow